Bullish on Durham   

Updated: August 2, 2007, 4:25 PM ET

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DURHAM, N.C. -- The ballpark looks as if it's been empty since way back when Kevin Costner had real hair.

Jim Caple

Jim Caple/ESPN.com

Jim on the mound at historic Durham Athletic Park.

The team left more than a decade ago, the last camera crew even longer ago than that. The snorting bull and the outfield fence are long gone, as are the bleachers that once were filled to capacity with fans cheering louder than a Porsche 911 with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt. The paint is peeling. The gates are locked. And there's probably fungus in the showers, not just the shower shoes.

But if you stand on the mound, turn toward the old grandstand, squint your eyes and listen real hard, you can almost see the boys and hear the most stirring movie lines since Bogie told Ingrid Bergman to get on the plane …

Crash: Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man is here. We need a live rooster -- was it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. [To the players.] Is that about right?

[The players nod.]

Crash: We're dealing with a lot of s--t.

Larry: OK, well, uh … candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern is good. OK, let's get two! Go get 'em.

Plan Your Baseball Trip

ESPN's SportsTravel section recently put together 10 sample Baseball Road Trips across the country which visit some of the best ballparks in both the majors and the minors.

Jim Caple is currently on a modified version of the South Atlantic Circuit trip.

Day 1: A lifestyle of love
Day 2: Baseball's first (fun) family

Check out the ESPN Travel section for more travel guides and information.

My minor league tour of South Atlantic baseball has brought me and my friend, Jon, to the old Durham Athletic Park, former home of the Durham Bulls and site of the best sports movie ever made. I feel like lighting candles, playing "Rock Around the Clock" and running around the infield with my socks off (like Dwight Gooden). And I'm not the only one. "Everyday someone wants to come in and take pictures or wander around the old ballpark," says Bill Miller of the Durham parks department.

Miller was the head groundskeeper for the Bulls when the movie was filmed, which provided him with an honor shared by Costner, Brad Pitt and Burt Lancaster -- he appears in a movie scene with Susan Sarandon. That's him raking the infield in the background of an early scene when Annie walks into the ballpark, his one and only role. "I think I've been typecast," he says. "My range is much better than I've been allowed to show."

Eighteen years is a long time, but it's surprising how many of the film sites you can find in Durham when you're not busy looking for the Duke lacrosse house.

More Jim Caple
Jim Caple's trip is nothing compared to Cass Sapir's: He's visiting all 189 major and minor league stadiums in 175 days.

The old ballpark is often locked, but even if there is no one to let you in you can see most everything through the cyclone fence. You can wander the same streets Costner does by the old Liggett & Myers Tobacco company. You can play pool where Crash and Nuke get into a fight at the Green Room (though technically, the pool hall is on the opposite side of Broad Street as it was during the filming -- but all the tables, signs and furniture made the move across the road). If you're willing to venture over to Raleigh, you can get a drink at Mitch's Tavern, where Crash, Nuke and Annie meet.

And not only is Annie's house a couple blocks from the stadium, the bathtub she and Crash "soaked in" is there as well.

"It's cool because everyone in town knows where you live," Trudy Burdette says. "You call to have the gas turned on and they say, 'Oh, you're in the 'Bull Durham' house.'

Jim Caple

Jim Caple/ESPN.com

Jim couldn't resist playing a little 9-ball at the Green Room.

"Right after we looked at the house we went out and rented the movie. So many scenes were filmed in and around the house. You can identify the scenes. We're like, 'There's the bathroom. That's where the shrine to baseball was. That was the wallpaper.' It's cool. The screen door slamming even sounds like the screen door in the movie."

Burdette's hospitality is impressive. She not only lets me in, she lets me sit on the famous bathtub. I'm tempted to fill the tub, put "Sixty-Minute Man" on the stereo and call up my wife but I think that would be pushing it.

It's not a completely successful visit, though. I simply thank Burdette and tell her good-bye when we leave, completely blowing the opportunity to stand in the entrance and deliver a more fitting farewell …

I believe in the soul, the (you know what), the (you also know what), the small of a woman's back, the hanging curveball, high fiber, good Scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I believe that there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter, I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for three days. [Pause.] Good night.

Jim Caple

Jim Caple/ESPN.com

For a "Bull Durham" fanatic, it's quite a treat to get to check out the dugout.

"Bull Durham" is the best sports movie ever made partly because of the talented people involved -- all three major actors went on to win Oscars -- but also because it is the most real. You believe these characters, you believe this story. Unlike most sports movies, the climax doesn't hinge on a dramatic home run in the ninth or a late-round knockout punch or a last-second shot. Life rarely follows such plots and neither does "Bull Durham." We don't even see the final game of the season. It's unimportant. Director Ron Shelton was more interested in telling the story of three memorable characters living in the minors than going over movie clichés so old that Crash should have Nuke write them down.

"I think it's real close to what life in the low levels of the minors is really like," says current Durham Bulls infielder Brent Butler. "You had all the different types of players you find on a real team. You've got the big Christian guy and you've got the guy who is just the opposite.

"And the scene where Crash is talking to himself during the at-bat is right on. As a hitter, you're definitely thinking things like that."

What to do in Durham
Think Durham is a tobacco town? Consider this plaque on the exterior of the old Liggettt & Myers Tobacco Company headquarters:

"Dedicated to the Millions That Enjoyed the Cigarette That Satisfies: Chesterfield."

And people say the tobacco companies don't care about their customers.

Actually, most of the old tobacco warehouses are being converted into condos and offices, including the old American Tobacco Company. It's been turned into a great restaurant mall next to the new Durham Athletic Park and is well worth a visit before or after a Bulls game.

Another must stop is King's Sandwich Shop, a classic hamburger and hot dog stand, just beyond the outfield of the Bulls' old stadium. You can picture Crash stopping by for a dog on his way home from a day game.

You also should tour Duke University and its gorgeous campus. When you finish, you'll either hate Duke more than ever … or head straight to the registrar's office to enroll.

The baseball is as real as the characters. Shelton used enough actual ballplayers that Miller says they kept the wardrobe woman busy replacing all the shoelaces set on fire when the players gave each other hot foots while waiting between scenes. Costner, meanwhile, has the smoothest swing ever seen on the silver screen (and from both sides of the plate).

Robbins, on the other hand …

"Tim needed a little more work," Miller says. "I don't know you would waste a first-round draft pick on him. But he pulled it off and when they filmed that scene with him where's he's having a nightmare and pitching in nothing but a garter belt and a jockstrap, it was 35 or 40 degrees out. He was a tough guy to do that."

The rose goes in front, big guy.

Even when the old park was in good shape it had problems. The clubhouses were so cramped and cruddy that they were deemed substandard for depicting a clubhouse in the low minors (the producers built their own for those scenes). Jon, who spent hundreds of evenings here when he lived in Durham, shows me a crusty old bathroom with a single toilet at the end of the grandstand. "That was the women's bathroom," he says. You mean a women's bathroom, I respond. "No, I mean the women's bathroom."

In no small way, the film that immortalized the old park also killed it off. "The movie came out in 1988 and from that point on it was wall-to-wall people here," Miller says. "We said capacity was 5,000 but we could only comfortably seat 3,500 and we were drawing twice that many. The lines at the restrooms and the beer stand just overwhelmed the facility."

Durham Bull

Jim Caple/ESPN.com

The team has moved to a new stadium, but the bull is omnipresent.

The Bulls left the old park to the weeds in 1995 and moved into a beautiful new stadium on the other side of downtown. It's a wonderful place to watch a game and is so far removed from the team's "Bull Durham'' days that it has a sushi stand. Not that the team distances itself from the movie. There is a mechanical bull atop the left field fence that snorts when the local team homers, and the old bull (built for the movie) is mounted inside the concourse. Fans wear "LaLoosh" T-shirts as they crowd the dugout area for autographs of the real players. And the players, most of them much too young to have seen the movie when it came out, still hear references to it.

"The biggest thing is when we're on the road," Butler says. "The pitching coach will come out to the mound and they'll show the candlestick scene on the scoreboard." And why not? That scene is so good, Robert Wuhl makes up for "Arli$$." Well, almost.

Losing a team to a new stadium with luxury suites and a gift shop might seem like a bad trade, but bad trades are part of baseball (who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas for God's sake?). Besides, the old park is getting new life breathed into it as well. Miller is in the process of getting the field back in playing shape for North Carolina Central to use in a couple years. That's very good news. The unofficial Church of Baseball always should be ready for its close-up, with freshly mowed grass, brilliant white chalk lines and an infield so neatly groomed you could hold a wedding on the diamond.

Or at least a live rooster sacrifice.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.


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